When Canadian speed skater Gilmore Junio gave his spot in an Olympic race to a teammate who had fallen in the trials, it was celebrated as an act of selfless generosity. But as even Junio admitted, the impulses of competition and culture played a motivating role in his decision.
The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia rippled with controversy. The Games cost $51 billion – more than all previous Winter Olympics combined – with crony capitalism rampant. Russian President Vladimir Putin had signed an anti-gay law that clashed with anti-discrimination principles embedded in the Olympic Charter. This followed the Russian Duma passing a spate of laws designed to stifle political dissent. Beyond this, the Games took place in a geopolitical tinderbox where terrorism was a genuine threat. And the Olympics were staged on the graves of Adygeans – or, Circassians – who precisely 150 years prior were violently repressed by Tsarist forces.
In short, the Sochi Games thrummed with elite entitlement, crass commercialism, and historical amnesia. Vancouver-based activist Am Johal’s assessment that “The Olympics are a corporate franchise that you buy with public money” appeared to be punching the target. On this corporate-frosted terrain of cutthroat Olympic competition, sports mavens were thirsting for some positive news.
Enter Gilmore Junio, a 23-year-old speed skater from Calgary. Junio – whose parents are first-generation immigrants to Canada from the Philippines – performed an individual act of generosity, which shined bright in the Sochi gloom.
In the Canadian Olympic trials that preceded the 2014 Games, Junio’s strong skating earned him slots to compete in both the 500-meter and 1,000-meter speed skating races in Sochi. He won a chance to compete in the 1,000-meter event because his teammate Denny Morrison – the Canadian golden boy of elite speed skating – crashed during the Canadian Olympic trials, shattering the favorite’s chance to enter the event.
In what was widely viewed as an outburst of selfless generosity, Junio opted to gift his spot in the 1,000 to his teammate. Once in Russia, Junio texted Morrison, “Hey man, are you ready to race the 1,000? I’ll give you my spot.” At first Morrison thought it was a joke. After Junio made it clear he was altogether serious, they convened their families at the Canada Olympic House and the skaters sealed the deal. Morrison spoke for many when he said of Junio’s act, “This is true Canadian Olympic spirit right here.”
Morrison went on to win a silver medal. Junio went on to become a household name in Canada, not for his skating – he placed tenth in the 500-meter sprint in Sochi – but for epitomizing the ever-elusive Olympic spirit. As The Globe and Mail put it, Junio was “speed skating’s good Samaritan.” He worked up the newspaper into a lather of archaic language in service of ersatz gravitas: “Greater love hath no man than this, that he give up his shot at a medal for the sake of his friends.” Sure, Canada was saddled with the likes of Justin Bieber and Rob Ford, but now it could lay claim to a gallant hero who embodied the chivalrous symbolism of the role model, and in Olympic Technicolor no less.
But was Junio simply channeling his inner Mother Theresa? As with all acts of Olympic generosity, there’s more to the story.
Part of Junio’s seemingly magnanimous decision emerged from a desire to stockpile medals for Canada. He said, “As Canadians we don’t just want to be at the Olympics competing anymore; we want to be on the podium.” Sounding a whole lot like a political science rational-choice theoretician, he reasoned, “So looking at that, and looking at my chances, and looking at Denny’s reputation in the 1,000 metres, and how he’s been skating: yeah, like I said, it was an easy decision.” In short, the determination to cede his Olympic spot to Morrison “was purely about performance.” As Junio explained to The Globe and Mail, “We wanted what was best for the team, what gave us the best chance to win.”
In a concerted effort to rack up Olympic medals, Canada started an “Own the Podium” program in 2004. Between 2010 and 2014, it dumped $6.9 million into Olympic long-track speed skating. The Globe and Mail described Canada’s speed skating squad as a “veritable medal factory,” and Own the Podium was designed to keep it that way. In many ways, the investment paid off, with Team Canada ending up fourth in the overall medal table behind Russia, the United States, and Norway. Canada collected 25 medals – ten gold, ten silver and five bronze – one medal short of its all-time record, established at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
Setting aside the program’s cringeworthy name and its built-in propensity to fetishize medals, Canada’s Own the Podium program created a pressure-cooker scenario that inflected Junio’s munificence. Turns out, Canadian speed skating coaches first approached Junio with the idea of relinquishing his spot in the 1,000-meter event to Morrison. As Bruce Arthur wrote in the National Post, “Maybe it wasn’t 100% Mr. Junio’s idea, but it sounds like it was his decision. And he made it, for Canada.” Perhaps. But the fact that the idea emerged with coaches, who wield consequential power within the team, complicates the story a bit.
Junio’s ethnicity adds another wrinkle to the tale. Although we believe we have autonomy in our personal decisions, our cultures whisper in our ears, directing us towards certain choices and actions. Junio showcased this as he credited his parents’ teachings as the basis for his selfless deed. He told The Globe and Mail, “My parents [Gino and Julie] came to Canada from the Philippines looking to give their family a better life. Through my childhood they raised me to be a team player, consider the big picture and not only think of myself, to be humble and not a showoff.” He expanded upon this in a TED Talk, saying, “It was through this example my parents created a sense of purpose for myself through hard work, sacrifice, and thinking beyond what you as an individual wanted. This is a the idea of sense of service that formed the DNA of my decisions.”
Junio’s statements about his decision suggest that his parents successfully instilled in him what some would consider the three core Filipino values – utang na loob (debt of gratitude), hiya (shame/humility), and pakikisama (sense of fellowship). Combined, these values help to create smooth interpersonal interactions within communities, but in Junio’s case may have preconditioned him to make the sacrifice that was regarded as as a hard decision.
The value of utang na loob (debt of gratitude) facilitates a system of reciprocity, in which one must recognize and return any favors or aide they have received from others. In this case, utang na loob operated to remind Junio how much Canada has done to improve the quality of life for him and his family. It is arguable that Junio will always be indebted to Canada for this – therefore, to practice utang na loob he must do what is right for Canada.
The value of hiya (shame/humility) facilitates a system of respect and community, as individuals often attribute their success to luck or external forces. One who practices hiya does not self-promote, but recognizes the circumstances that may have helped in the his or her success. In Junio’s case, hiya whispers to him that his efforts and talents alone did not qualify him for the 1000-meter event. Instead, he was lucky to qualify – a reward that was only bestowed upon him because of Morrison’s crash. Hiya suggests Junio should recognize this and act accordingly.
The value of pakikisama (sense of fellowship) helps further maintain smooth interpersonal relationships by encouraging individuals to engage in actions that will create the least amount of friction with others. Often this results in individuals putting their wants and needs aside and catering to others, especially those in positions of power. Pakikisama whispers to Junio and advises him to find a solution that appeases (a) the Canadian fan base, who views Denny Morrison as their top skater, (b) coaches who want to win the most medals for Canada and explicitly suggest that Junio give up his spot, and (c) his family, whose teachings preach sacrifice and humility. These coinciding expectations clearly define the path of least resistance for Junio.
The intersection of these values and a push for nationalistic success at the Olympics set the stage for an individual, who, as Junio put it in his TED Talk, exists in “an athlete’s world [where] gold holds more weight than blood” to give up an opportunity to earn the gold he has trained for. Thus, it is important to question what exactly is being celebrated—a selfless individual? A good Canadian? A good Filipino? Or a Filipino-Canadian, situated in a position where giving up his opportunity to earn an Olympic medal was the only feasible option to move forward as a “good Filipino” and a “good Canadian”?
Regardless of what enabled Junio’s selflessness, his actions spurred a social-media and mass-media campaign that rallied support for him to carry the Canadian flag at the closing ceremony. In the end, gold-medal-winning bobsledders Kaillie Humphries and Heather Moyse were selected to hoist the flag. Still, many commentators held up Junio as one of the Games’ brightest stars. After the Olympics, when Junio returned home to Calgary, he was greeted with a groundswell of public adoration. Fans waved signs like “Gilmore for PM” and “Gilmore Junio won gold in the hearts of Canada.” And thanks to a successful Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, Junio walked away with a special commemorative medal made of gold, silver, and Canadian maple wood.
But the mantle of the role model is a fraught space. Mike Marqusee argues in Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties that the role model moniker is an “incubus on the back of so many sporting champions” that entails “uphold[ing] certain social and moral conventions.” Gilmore Junio’s complex act of sporting generosity illuminates some of the magical contradictions and internal tensions inherent to hyper-competitive sport on the five-ring terrain. Let’s hope that “incubus” doesn’t weigh him down or flatten him into just another monochromatic purveyor of Olympic spectacle in the service of capital accumulation.